How Song Traditions Were Preserved During the Middle Ages


By Carol SymesUniversity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

In the 13th century, enormous collections of songs in books known as chansonniers were created to preserve the rich vernacular song traditions of the langue d’oc, or Occitan, and the langue d’oïl, or Middle French: the dialects of southern and northern Francia, respectively. These men and women found or discovered new ways to sing about love, longing, and loss during the 11th and 12th centuries.

A medieval warrior holding a sword and shield
The first tales of the First Crusade were told by warriors who had participated, not monastic historians. (Image: Anton Vierietin/Shutterstock)

No Records

We don’t know how those songs were originally recorded in writing or when. Was there a living oral tradition that outlasted the singers that was only saved from oblivion by the combined efforts of performers and scribes in the late 13th century? Or did those efforts begin earlier?

Yet we still don’t know what most of these medieval songs sounded like. We have thousands of troubadour lyrics, but only music for a fraction of them, which suggests that those who wrote them down didn’t have the knowledge or skills to notate them. Nor can we be sure whether the identity of the performers always matched the identity of the song’s narrative. 

Painting of two medieval men and a woman singing while one man holds an instrument
Because of the anonymity behind the songs that we have access to, we can’t be sure of the original songwriter. (Image: Lorenzo Costa/Public domain)

Take, for example, one of the earliest extant troubadour songs, which can be dated to the time of the Second Crusade, around 1146. It is clearly intended to represent the sufferings of a young woman whose lover has joined the crusading army. As such, it could be a valuable example of women’s song, as well as a rare testimony to the feelings of those left behind. But can we be sure that the composer was a woman and not a man posing as one?

Warriors Making Poetry

The first chroniclers of the First Crusade were men who had actually fought in its battles and not the armchair monastic historians of northern France who were trying to control the narrative and spin it to the advantage of the papacy and nobility.

Around 1106, seven years after the end of the crusade, Bishop Baudri of Bourgueil wrote, “I was not a part of this blessed army I am talking about. Nor did I see what I tell. But some scavenger—I don’t know who because he concealed his name—published an extremely coarse booklet on this topic … Any public reading from it, rude and unkempt as it was, would immediately distract even simpler folk.”

Baudri’s contemporary, Abbot Guibert of Nogent, wrote, “There was, in fact, a history something like [mine], but it would frequently discourage the reader by the terrible stupidity of its speech.” The monk Robert of Reims wrote, “The abbot showed me a history made from this material, but it was somewhat displeasing to him … partly because it rudely neglected a bunch of excellent topics and the whole thing wandered rudely from literary speech.”

These men, guardians of the status quo, were incensed and annoyed that common warriors might have the desire and the wherewithal to write and circulate their own accounts of the crusade, which they themselves wanted to cast in Biblical terms.

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Peter Tudebode

How were such men gaining access to writing materials so that they could record their own experiences of warfare? There is one very illuminating example of how that could occur. As Jay Rubenstein has shown, a history of the First Crusade attributed to a priest called Peter Tudebode is not actually an original history. 

Instead, Peter added marginal annotations to his copy of the oldest known history, the Gesta Francorum (or Deeds of the Franks). These annotations were later incorporated into the main text, which was then ascribed to him. What Peter was doing, then, was adding his own experiences, recollections, and details to that history—correcting and expanding but also personalizing it.

Most importantly, he wanted to ensure that his faithful comrades were remembered and the dead properly mourned. Back at home, the rituals of dying, burial, and grieving were times of intensified recollection and narration, in which women played a crucial role as caretakers of the body and keepers of family memory. 

Those who died on crusade were, therefore, bereft of these attentions and mnemonic landscapes, just as their families were bereft of the opportunity to mark their deaths as meaningful.

The Printing Press

These are revolutionary shifts that undergird and presage that of the printing press in the 1450s—an essentially medieval mechanical device that came into being because of the greater and greater contemporary demand for books, cheaply and quickly reproduced for an eager mass market. 

We might compare this development to the rapid changes in technological access. Once, the only computers were in the labs of universities or corporations like IBM. Afterward, only a few people had a Macintosh or a clunky PC. Then, computer labs and personal computer ownership became more widespread. And now we all have not only laptops but mobile phones—essentially, pocket computers.

With each successive development, more and more people have acquired a new form of literacy and the capacity to use it for their own needs. These changes have been more rapid than those occurring during the Middle Ages—less than two generations. 

But when we recall that the basic and cumbersome modes of writing had persisted in antiquity for millennia and had remained confined to a very specific class of male practitioners during that time, we can better appreciate the seismic changes that took place between 800 and 1200, in just a few centuries.

Common Questions about How Song Traditions Were Preserved During the Middle Ages

Q: Why do we have medieval songs but don’t know how they were sung?

Since our knowledge of the song traditions of the medieval age is limited to the words of the songs, we can surmise that the people who sang these songs passed down their knowledge orally and probably didn’t know how to write them down, apart from the words.

Q: Who were the first chroniclers of the First Crusade?

The first chroniclers of the First Crusade were those who had actually fought in battle. This was unusual since it was expected that the history of these wars would be told by monastic historians who would spin tales into a narrative to their liking.

Q: What do the song traditions and narratives of the first and second crusades tell us about the people’s literacy at the time?

The song traditions that were passed down orally but also written down lead us to believe that the literacy of people was increasing, much to the dismay of monastic historians who wanted to tell the stories themselves. People’s versions of what happened used much more personal and “rude” language compared to the norm of the time.

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